10 Guidelines To Be A Successful Performer

Recently I had a discussion with someone who questioned the professionalism of my practice of using a music stand at shows and my preference to play shows seated versus standing. This got me thinking, generally, about what it means to be a music professional and what practices one should employ if they want to be as professional as possible. I came up with 10 guidelines to codify what I consider to be professionalism for a performing musician. Feel free to disagree, I’d welcome any comments to the contrary. If you change my mind I’ll make an addition to the post.

1. Timeliness

I can’t say it enough. Be on time. Be on time to everything. Getting to something late, a practice, a gig, a recording session, or a meeting is disrespectful. What you are saying when you arrive late is “I do not care about you. I do not care enough to remember or to set an alarm, and whatever I was doing is more important than what I scheduled with you.” It also projects an image of you as lacking in confidence, as disorganized and unprepared. People don’t like that.

Sometimes things happen…calendar mixups, traffic, kids, life that keep you from being on time. Occasionally that is alright as long as you make sure to call ahead of time with an explanation and an estimated time of arrival. Don’t make it a habit. If you get a reputation as “the late guy” you might find that people don’t want to book you. Conversely, always being on time projects confidence, preparedness, courtesy, and respect. That can go a long way to establishing a good professional relationship.

Timeliness is about more than simply being on time to appointments though. It’s really about respecting other people’s busy schedules, as well as your own. To be on time you must factor in things like set up, drive time, account for traffic, and leave some room for the unexpected. If you have a gig from 9-12, don’t show up at 8:30, show up at 7, plan to leave your house by 6. Why? Because if you plan to get out the door by 6 you will actually leave at 6:15, then you have to load up your vehicle with your gear (another 15 minutes) and it takes 30 minutes to drive to the gig. Now you’re there at 7. Go in, say hello to the owner and staff (15-20 minutes), load your gear in (20 minutes), park the vehicle (5 minutes), set up the sound system (30 minutes), sound check (20 minutes). Now you’ve got 30 minutes to relax, get your set list finalized, tune up, warm up, get a glass of water, and settle in for the gig. That’s actually cutting it pretty close. It’s better to have the 1/2 hour to spend putzing around before the show than to be running around like a madman 5 minutes before you go on trying to get everything working.

In addition to preparedness there is also the idea of promptness. Now I know I sound like a prude, but it is really important. Be on top of things. Don’t let emails sit in your inbox, or messages in your facebook feed or voicemails on your phone…return them as soon as you can. Even if you simply say “I’m really swamped right now, I will give it some thought and you can expect to hear from me by Tuesday.” Then they know when to expect a response and don’t feel as though they are being ignored. If you can answer a message right away that really shows how on the ball you are. There’s few things that irk me more than when people don’t respond to a text or an email. I, personally, make it an effort to respond to all messages within an hour, but certainly no longer than 1 day. With all of the communication technology available there is no excuse for taking longer than that to respond to a message.

2. Sobriety

I know this seems like a no-brainer to most of us. But here it is…don’t play music for other people unless you’re sober. You may think that a few drinks make you awesome. It doesn’t…it makes you suck. If you don’t believe me, try this little experiment; record yourself playing 5-6 songs completely sober, then go drink for a couple of hours and go back to record the same 5-6 songs, then listen to them back to back the next day. I’ve tried it…we were horrible the second time (but at the time we thought we were really playing great!).

Don’t show up for a gig or a recording session or a practice if you’ve been drinking or doing drugs. That’s the lowest possible bar of professionalism. I guarantee if you show up to a gig buzzed you will not get another one.

Also, don’t drink during a gig. Seriously…have some pride in your work. If you worked in an office you wouldn’t be able to pound vodka shots at your desk, you’d be fired immediately. Music is no different. When you’re at a gig you are a performer…this is your job. Respect yourself, respect your profession, respect the music and don’t drink on the job. After the gig…go nuts if you want, blow all your gig money on a bar tab…whatever. Just don’t play music for other people under the influence…you sound worse than you would sober, I promise you.

3. Equipment

Make sure you have what you need, that it’s in good repair, and that you have the stuff to make minor repairs on the spot. This is another simple one. Most commonly this problem manifests itself in the case of cords and mics. If you’re a singer, bring a microphone and don’t assume that someone else will have one for you. If you’re a guitarist, be sure your stuff works. Make sure you bring your own cables, and that you bring more than you need…vocalists, bring 2 XLR cables, guitarists bring 4 1/4″ cables and a DI box and 2 XLR cables per instrument. Why? Because it’s better to be over prepared and have backups should your cords break on you. It’s much better than the embarrassment you’d feel if you broke a 1/4″ cable mid-gig and had to cut the show short because you didn’t bring another one. Also…tools…bring them. make sure you have some little screwdirivers, allen wrenches, string winders, a pliers, drum lug wrench, etc. For instrumentalists…make sure you pack extra strings, batteries, extension cords, picks, sticks, heads, power supplies and anything else that needs constant replacing. Again…how dumb will you look if you break a string and have to cut the show short by 1.5 hours because you didn’t bring extra strings? Like a good boy scout you must be prepared.

Also, if your equipment breaks, get it fixed. Don’t show up to a gig with a drum head patched with duct tape or a guitar with a broken headstock you reattached with some wood screws…this is your job, your instruments make the sounds that you’re asking others to pay for. Don’t give them a substandard product because you’re too lazy to bring your instrument into the shop.

4. Be Prepared/Practiced up. 

A show is a time to perform that which you have rehearsed. Shows are not a place to try new things, play new tunes, or play something that you’re not comfortable with. You can’t possibly immerse yourself in the fine art of making music or interact with the audience if you’re busy trying to remember how to make a certain chord, or figure out how to play a lick, or trying to remember what part of the song comes next. That’s all stuff you should have worked out in practice prior to booking the show. If you’re still doing this stuff on stage then you aren’t ready to be on a stage. Spend some time in the practice room and start performing when you’re fully prepared.

This isn’t to say that one should take all spontaneity or improvisation out of music…that should be encouraged, but you can only improvise on something you are already comfortable with. Being properly practiced actually makes gigs a lot more fun because you’re not worried about “getting it right” you’re focused on “doing it well.” It makes a big difference for the performer and the audience.

5. Music sheets or not?

This depends on what you’re playing, and what the focus of the music is. If you’re a classical musician then there’s no doubt that you would have sheet music in front of you. In jazz it seems about 50/50. In popular music I think the distinction is whether or not you are incorporating dance and movement as part of the “show.” If part of your act requires you to run and jump around them having sheet music isn’t practical, but for other forms of music it is.

In the kind of music I play lyrics are very important. In my ideal show there would be a seated audience who were listening intently on the music…my focus is on playing well and saying the right things at the right time. I don’t jump around and so having lyric sheets is great for me. I’ve got 500 cover songs in my book and over 50 originals. That’s a lot of chords and lyrics to remember. I figure if having a reference there helps me to play the songs well then it’s better for me to have it. The alternative is that I forget a word or an entire verse and look like a moron, which is less professional. Basically I think if it helps you make better music, bring the sheets along. If you don’t need them, don’t use them.

A note though…if you bring sheet music try to use it as a reference only and not as a crutch. Look at the audience or close your eyes, or do whatever it is you do when you make music, but try not to stare at the sheets and just play along.

6. Stand or sit?

Again…I think it depends on what style you play and what your goal is. A speed metal guitarist should probably not be seated, a classical guitarist should. You should do whatever it is that helps you make the best music and put on the best show. For me, I find that sitting down gives me more control over the guitar. I miss less notes and am able to focus on singing moreso than when I’m standing up. I think that playing my original music seated produces a better overall show from a musical perspective. However, when I’m playing with my rock group we always stand because movement is part of the show and we’re trying to encourage people to get up and dance.

7. Website

You need one, and no, a myspace page doesn’t count. They are so cheap and easy to make these days that I don’t see any reason not to have one, except the obvious…laziness. If I look up a band and all they have to show for themselves is a myspace page I think “they really must not care about their craft very much.” and I find that makes me not care about it either. It doesn’t have to be anything special….there are some great, out of the box, wordpress themes. It will literally cost you $30 and take all of 4 hours to set up a mediocre website even if you’re not a big computer person.

Better yet, stimulate the local economy and find a designer nearby who can make an awesome site for you. It’s an investment to get custom design work done, but totally worth it. In this digital world your website is often what gives people a first impression of you and based on that they decide whether they want to buy your stuff or hire you. Show them you care about what you do by presenting yourself well.

8. Generosity

This is a people business. If you want to get ahead, don’t be a jerk, be generous. Do favors for people. Open for them. Use your social media to promote other people’s stuff. Back other artists’ kickstarter projects. Offer them other services for things you might be good at. Instead of booking yourself for a whole night, find some other bands to split the bill with you and pay them an equal cut. Do shows for charity.

When you are generous to others they are often generous back. If you support the careers of your peers they will support yours. This isn’t an “either/or” business with a finite amount of shows or music sales that either you or they will get. This is a “both/and” business where new opportunities, fans and gigs pop up every day. Don’t hoard your success, share it.

My first CD was done entirely on the generous favors of others. The recording studio time and talent was a gift from a friend. Even though I offered to pay the musicians on the album they wouldn’t accept payment. They just wanted to do me a favor. The artwork was a gift from another friend. The shows that followed it, including the CD release, were favors done for me by people who, at the time, were complete strangers. I met the guys over Twitter, and now many of us are friends. Other, more well-established musicians have been generous with professional advice, insights into the music business, and with contacts and introductions. Friends have been generous in helping me promote and develop new musical projects and shows. In return I help them when they ask for it. It’s a great system where everyone wins. You never lose by giving others the gift of your time and talent.

9. Value yourself and what you do

I’m going to say that I am still a bit hypocritical about this one, but I do think it is right. Unless it’s a charity or a favor don’t play for free. You have a valuable skill that took years to hone, more hours of practice than can be counted to prepare, and requires you to purchase expensive equipment to perform. That’s worth something. Don’t sell yourself short.

People say “but you love it so much…shouldn’t you just play music for the passion of it?” Yes you should…howevrer, a chef will also cook for the passion of food, but you’d never go to a restuarant and tell them that because they love cooking so much they should give you a meal for free. A carpenter loves woodcraft, but you’d never walk into a showroom and ask for a free dresser. A photographer loves taking portraits, but you’d never march into a studio and ask for a free session. Music performance is a job, don’t let people tell you it’s not worth paying for.

Also…taking shows for free undercuts the whole market. People who gig for a living know that they should be making more per show than what they do, but they aren’t able to charge what they should because there’s always someone out there who is willing to do it for less…or for nothing. How are they supposed to make a respectable, living wage in a market like that? I’m not saying you should go to a neighborhood coffee shop and ask for $300 on a Thursday night, but you should ask for some compensation.

I try to use this rule to value my time…how much is time away from my family worth? Playing music requires that I take time away from being with my kids, and is it worth it to play for free coffee? Not really. Is it worth it for $50? Let’s see…a 3 hour show with 1 hour setup and 1 hour take down is 5 hours at $50…that’s $10/hour and if I’m playing with the guys that’s only $3.33/hour….so no, it’s not. I figure that my time is worth a minimum of $20/hour. That’s a respectable wage. Which means that for a 5 hour commitment I need to be making $100. I assume that the others in my group value their time similarly, so the three of us should be asking for $300 per show AT MINIMUM. Unfortunately, the going rate for bars hasn’t changed since the ’80’s. An average gig pays at about $150. For a 4 piece group that’s about 7 bucks an hour. You can’t live on 7 bucks an hour, 5 hours a day, 2 days a week. Music is clearly an undervalued profession…why? Because so many musicians don’t value themselves and their work and are willing to play for these low rates, or even for free.

What’s your time worth? Think about it and if we all start asking for a decent wage, maybe we will start getting one.

10. Group dynamics

Music is an experience best shared. If you want to share it with people on an ongoing basis you need to establish some ground rules about how to work in a group.

  • Be honest. If you like or don’t like something, speak up. If you have a problem, talk about it. Don’t be passive-aggressive, dropping hints, or assuming that others know what you’re thinking.
  • Be respectful. Respect others’ time, equipment, ideas, concerns, and talent. Leave your ego outside the practice room. We’ve all heard horror stories about bands ruined by competing egos…the best solution? Don’t be an egomaniac. Unless you’re BB King, Michael Hedges or Tom Petty face it…you’re not that great, not great enough to warrant ruining a relationship, anyways (and I’ve actually met BB King…even he’s not an egomaniac).  Listen to other’s ideas, try things out and decide what works best for the group as a group. If your idea gets shot down, take it in stride and move on to better things.
  • Be forgiving. Nobody is perfect…give your band-mates some slack. If there’s a reoccurring problem. calmly talk it out before or after a practice (not before a show).
  • Share the load. Make sure everyone has equal responsibilities…be there to help with setup, help book shows, help with promotions, don’t just show up to play and leave after you get your money.
  • Be intentional…make sure you’re playing music for the right reason, because you love it. If playing music becomes more about the money, popularity or partying than it does about the music then something is wrong. Music should be fun, a goal in itself, and should be a joy shared by musicians and audience alike. Keep your priorities straight.


Have a good time. Music is a job, one that requires timeliness, sobriety, preparedness, professionalism, self confidence, business acumen, financial investment, lots of time and is fraught with complications…but it is also wonderful, transcendent, energizing, cathartic, healing, fun, and one of the most eloquent ways that members of humanity can relate to one another. Take it for what it is…a gift…and enjoy it.

2 thoughts on “10 Guidelines To Be A Successful Performer

  1. Chris Arcand says:

    Absolutely spot on. I think a lot of people get especially caught off guard about the timeliness part. Sure, people understand that being on time is important, but what it takes to actually be on time can be surprising – my wife constantly asks ‘Why are you going to ____ so early?’ like I’m a lunatic for thinking it takes so long. Often enough, though, you’ll find it takes you a long time to get from point A to point B with all of the things you mentioned checked off. And the need to have that 30 minutes to just relax and prepare yourself to perform, in any setting, is really the key to being your best. Great read. Thanks Tim!

  2. Steve Cheesebrow says:

    I agree with the first field almost to an extreme. I have almost a phobia about being late. You can never be to prepared. Part of my navy training. Plan ahead for all things that can go wrong and have the training and equipment to handle the situation. Also cross train on the equipment. If something breaks what can you use to fill in for the short term. Tim, you play in a very small arena. Just look at some of the shows on MTV and some other programs like that and the performers are sitting to build a level of intimacy that you can not have on a stage before thousands of screaming people. Then after many years you might learn all the chords and words so you won’t need a music stand. Evidently some of these people never saw the big bands of the 40’s. Every artist had their stand.

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